It was in the 1930s that the Italian writer and art historian Mario Praz (1896-1982) first highlighted the dark side of Romanticism, thus naming a vast swathe of artistic creation, which from the 1760s onwards exploited the shadows, excesses and irrational elements that lurked behind the apparent triumph of enlightened Reason.
This world was created in the English Gothic novels of the late 18th century, a genre of literature that fascinated the public with its penchant for the mysterious and the macabre. The visual arts quickly followed suit: many painters, engravers and sculptors throughout Europe vied with the writers to create horrifying and grotesque worlds: Goya and Géricault presented us with the senseless atrocities of war and the horrifying shipwrecks of their time, Füssli and Delacroix gave substance to the ghosts, witches and devils of Milton, Shakespeare and Goethe, whereas C.D. Friedrich and Carl Blechen cast the viewer into enigmatic, gloomy landscapes, reflecting his fate.
From the 1880s, seeing the vanity and ambiguity behind the belief in progress, many artists picked up this legacy of Dark Romanticism, turning towards the occult, reviving myths and exploiting the new ideas about dreams, in order to bring Man face to face with his fears and contradictions: the savagery and depravity hidden in every human being, the risk of mass degeneration, the harrowing strangeness of daily life revealed in the horror stories of Poe and Barbey d’Aurévilly. And so, right in the middle of the second industrial revolution, hordes of witches, sniggering skeletons, shapeless devils, lecherous Satans and deadly enchantresses suddenly appeared, expressing a defiant, carnivalesque disillusionment with the present.
After the First World War, when the Surrealists took the unconsciousness, dreams and intoxication as the basis for artistic creation, they completed the triumph of the imagination over the principle of reality, and thus, put the finishing touches to the spirit itself of Dark Romanticism. At the same time, the cinema seized onFrankenstein, Faust and other masterpieces of this genre that are now firmly established in the collective imagination.
Following the first stage of the exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, the Musée d’Orsay plans to present the many different expressions of Dark Romanticism, from Goya and Füssli to Max Ernst and the Expressionist films of the 1920s, through a selection of 200 works that includes paintings, graphic works and films.
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